Illustration from Phillip Medhurst Collection depicting Joshua fighting Amalek
Illustration from Phillip Medhurst Collection depicting Joshua fighting Amalek

Amalek: remembering evil in order to forget

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

Isaiah 54:1-10

Student: Whatcha doing?

Rabbi: I just made a new quill from a goose feather and I am testing out my Hebrew lettering. (The rabbi writes out four Hebrew letters: ayin, mem, lamed and koof.)

Student: Hey. Why did you just blot out the word that you just wrote in Hebrew letters? It looked nice.

Rabbi: When I want to test a quill, I write “Amalek” and then cross it out in order to fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek.

Student: You mean you remember to write “Amalek” so you can forget Amalek? That’s weird.

Rabbi: Welcome to Judaism. Followers of Torah do lots of strange things. For example, most people are afraid of strangers, but we are commanded to welcome and care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

Student: Who was Amalek anyway?

Rabbi: Seventy-four of the Torah’s 613 commandments (mitzvot) are in this week’s parashah, Ki Teitzei. They are all about how we treat each other. They are ethical behaviors that, when followed, create a moral environment, a just society. The sum of them all is the obligation to remember “what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt.”

Student: What did Amalek do that was so bad?

Rabbi: In Exodus 17:8 we read, “Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.” We were refugees from Egypt, passing through, and King Amalek attacked us. But not as a soldier, as a coward. He had his army assault our families, women and children, tired and thirsty, from behind, at the rear of our community.

Student: What kind of king attacks women and children?

Rabbi: A man without shame. I learned this from my teacher, professor Nechama Leibowitz. She pointed to this sentence (Deut. 25:18) in our Torah portion: “He had no awe of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”

Nechama taught that this expression appears only four times in the Torah. In Genesis 20:11, Abraham explains to Abimelech why he lied about Sarah’s identity: “I thought: surely there is no awe of God in this place.” In Genesis 42:18, Joseph says to his brothers after accusing them of spying: “Do this and you shall live, for I am in awe of God.” In Exodus 1:17, as the midwives refuse to murder the male infants, “And the midwives were in awe of God and did not do as the king of Egypt told them.” The fourth time is in Ki Teitzei.

In all of these verses, the litmus test for “awe of God” is the attitude to the weak and the stranger. Amalek is the archetype of the Godless, who attack the weak because they are weak, who cut down the stragglers in every generation (“Studies in Devarim,” Hebrew edition, pages 234-235. Thanks to Rabbi David Golinkin).

Student: So we hate the Amalekites?

Rabbi: Oh no. Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hasidic master, points out that in the Hebrew text of the Torah, the instruction “to blot out the memory of Amalek” is written in the singular, not the plural. Not the Amalekites, Amalek, and not the man Amalek, but for each of us not to become an Amalek. Not to act like an Amalek, and certainly not to support an Amalek.

Student: So why again do you blot out the work “Amalek” after you have just written it?

Rabbi: So I remember to search out Amalek inclinations within myself and remember to work to blot them out of myself.

Student: So, if we are to be a just society, we must be more in awe of God than ourselves, and remember to treat the stranger and the refugee not like Amalek, but to be a people like the Torah wants us to become. Can I try a little blotting?

Rabbi: Here is my quill. Write the letters ayin, mem, lamed and koof. Then pause, and say almost to yourself, “Amalek.” Seek out your inner Amalek and blot away.

Student: That’s not so weird after all.

Rabbi: No, it’s Torah.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].